Local NJROTC cadets travel to Parris Island to sample life as a real Marine recruit
Lake Mary High School junior Ashton Yates braced himself as Staff Sergeant Erin Perry, a Marine drill instructor, approached the bus. Ashton was with a group of LMHS Navy Junior ROTC cadets arriving for a three-day stay at Parris Island, where Marine recruits go for boot camp. Ashton knew what to expect. Some of his classmates, not so much.
“She got on the bus and started screaming at us,” says Ashton, a 16-year-old junior. “She started yelling for us to get off the bus, to fall into formation.”
Basically what the cadets were getting was a genuine taste of life at Parris Island, which trains male Marine recruits from east of the Mississippi River and female recruits from around the country.
There would be no fooling around, and Ashton says he understood why.
As Lieutenant Colonel Francis “Skip” Barth, head of Lake Mary High’s NJROTC program, puts it, high-school students are used to being cut a little slack. They may say “just a minute” when asked to take out the trash at home. And at school, they know no teacher is going to yell at them, even if they mess up.
But at a real military training camp, especially one with the history and heritage of Parris Island, all bets are off.
“When they say do this, do that now, they’re not asking,” Col. Barth quips.
The students were being treated no differently than the real Marine recruits around them, and that was the point.
“No one was asking them nicely, ‘Will you please clean the hatch?’“ says Col. Barth.
Naturally, the trip was about much more than yelling. The NJROTC cadets engaged in drills and marches, exercised, watched a graduation ceremony, and visited the Parris Island Museum to learn about the hallowed ground where future Marines have been training since 1915.
But discipline and order were the rules of the day.
The students’ mornings began at exactly 5:00 a.m., with lights out at 9:00 p.m. Even meal times were not a moment to relax. The LMHS teens were instructed to eat staring straight ahead and not look at their food, just as Marine recruits are taught to do. There was no chatting or socializing. And, needless to say, no cell phones.
While Ashton was prepared for the drill instructor’s manner, some of his fellow students were initially taken aback.
“It was weird that she was yelling at us,” says freshman Thalia Merced. “I was a little scared at first. But then you just kind of got used to it.”
Thalia actually described the whole experience as fun.
“You don’t get to go to boot camp every day,” she says.
Cadet Commander Tori McKinney, a 17-year-old senior, says she did not take the yelling personally.
“The drill sergeant treated us like any other recruit,” Tori says. “It’s her job.”
Summer Burton, one of the two booster moms who made the trip with the students, has her own perspective on how the cadets were dealt with.
“Everyone gets the same treatment, which produces a sense of camaraderie,” Summer says. “It’s not designed to punish you. It’s designed to bring you together.”
The cadets also learned that others can suffer the consequences of their own mistakes. For example, if one cadet failed to exit the bus in a timely fashion, the others had to reboard and start the process all over.
“What you do affects your buddy,” Summer says. “This isn’t about you. It’s bigger than that.”
The accommodations on Parris Island were sparse. The group of about 40 from LMHS slept in bunk beds in a pair of open barracks – one for the girls and another for the boys.
On the final day of the trip, something pretty cool happened. The cadets walked a trail through the woods to reach a monument that explained the history of the area. There, the drill instructor, Sgt. Perry, removed her cap, a symbolic gesture, and engaged in a question-and-answer session with the kids in a decidedly friendlier voice.
“She was like, ‘Ask me whatever you want,’” Summer says.
Her change of demeanor, Summer believes, was her way of saying, “I’m human. I’m not just this mean person who has been yelling at you.”
Soon the cadets would be on their way back home, where they could relax and maybe even say “just a minute” when asked to take out the trash.
But, after their boot-camp experience on historic Parris Island, perhaps the extra minute won’t last as long as it did before.
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